CURVES WONDERFUL CURVES: Good Lines Mean Good Designs – Part 2

At the end of March, I published a post on some of the early, though somewhat obscure, Harbingers of Spring – for me these offer hope after a long cold winter (my tolerance for winter must be decreasing as I get older, because this winter was neither long nor particularly cold).

The glimmer of colour I noticed radiating from tree branches last month is now a full-on flush of green as plumped-up buds become tiny unfurling leaves, especially after this week’s rain. The waiting game it seems is over. Hooray, gardening season is upon us! Perennials and annuals have been arriving at local greenhouses for a few weeks, trees and shrubs are here now too. Rakes, shovels, gloves and overalls are coming out of storage – it’s time to start ‘digging in the dirt’. Okay hold on there gardeners, slow down – remember you need to get those garden design lines right first. Guess I better finish Part 2 of GOOD LINES MEAN GOOD DESIGNS before your attention turns to the array of bright shiny things at your neighbourhood nursery.

Alrighty then … last post we looked at Landscape Design Concepts that contain straight lines – from that discussion you might conclude that a rectilinear design theme is my preferred concept form. Not so – in fact my back yard is curvilinear and my front yard, arc and tangent.  So you see I do like curves, but if I’d presented curving themes first, would you have read further?


Curves are the design line most favoured by gardeners, often to the exclusion of other design themes. Admittedly, there is something very captivating about voluptuous curves – the problem is curvilinear designs are the hardest to execute skillfully. The curves required to make this design theme work, are sweeping arcs as opposed to wiggly lines.

The curvilinear design theme is a design formed from continuous flowing lines using the circumferences of adjacent circles and/or ellipses. The fewer circles used and the more of each circle you can utilize, the more effective this theme will be.

Weak vs. Strong design lines. The top image illustrates weak design lines formed from many circles, utilizing a small portion of each circle. The bottom example illustrates strong design lines formed from fewer circles utilizing a greater portion of each circle.

Unfortunately the tendency is to use too many smaller arcs. As I’ve mentioned before, gardeners tend to subscribe to the adage that more is better – they equate simple with boring and mistakenly assume that adding a few more bows and bends will up the wow factor. It doesn’t. Instead it creates an awkward kind of visual movement as the eye wanders along a vague path.

The extra curves (top left) unnecessarily complicate this design line. The simplified curve shown in the second image (bottom right) would create a more effective curvilinear design.

Not all sites or space allotments are ideal for a curvilinear design theme. It’s really best suited for a site that is relatively large – large enough to accommodate some big bold arcs. Sometimes though, there may be a reasonable amount of space, but only in one direction, say a site that is either narrow and deep, or wide and shallow.  In this case, the solution might be to choose a different concept form altogether, or you may just have to be a little creative in your understanding of the curvilinear theme.

Side yards are typically long and narrow – gardeners often opt for a weak serpentine line like the one on the left, assuming there isn’t room for larger arcs. Instead, one could reinterpret the curvilinear theme to include a straight line, resulting in a bolder design line.

A back yard with very little depth can still be designed in a curvilinear fashion, but not with the use of weak wavy lines(left). Including one or two straight lines can allow for the use of longer deeper arcs even when space is tight(right).

But what if you have no appreciable distance in either direction – does this mean you are limited to straight lines?  Not necessarily. While a very small urban yard doesn’t lend itself to a curvilinear design theme, there are still ways you can incorporate curves into your garden beds. The Arc and Tangent Form I discussed in my last post can work nicely in a small yard, or you could try a circular design form, which is made up of circles and portions of circles. There are several circular design themes, but the simplest of them is overlapping circles.


An overlapping circular design is formed entirely from the arcs of overlapping circles. The key to making this design theme work is to use a variety of sizes, with one dominant circle. The circles should overlap enough that they can intersect at 90 degrees or more, thus avoiding acute angles.

An Overlapping Circular design theme can work equally well on a small site or a large site, because the circles can be moved in any direction. Note that on the larger property space is taken up, not by increasing the number of circles, but rather the size of the circles. This ensures that they will be in scale with the site.

A lovely example of an overlapping circle design. Photo Credit: Merton Designs, Dublin


Regardless of whether you choose a curving or straight line design there a few things to keep in mind.

  • Maintain continuity – stick with one design theme, as mixing themes will result in disunity.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t include an arc or a circle in an angular design, but the dominant theme must still be angular. It’s also acceptable to use one form in the front yard and a different one in the back, assuming that they are visually separated hence wouldn’t be experienced together.

This angular design contains a single arc for the purpose of creating emphasis.

  • Avoid acute angles – when design lines meet at less than 90 degrees, acute angles are formed. These are best avoided if at all possible. Aesthetically, these sharp angles appear awkward – in fact as a design instructor, they are first thing my eye goes to when critiquing student’s work. Functionally, there are several reasons to avoid them – in concrete, the use of acute angles creates weak areas prone to cracking. In beds and borders it creates tiny unusable spaces, too small for plants to grow in, and in lawns creates tight spots that are difficult to mow.
The use of acute angles in garden design is not recommended, for both functional and aesthetic reasons.

The use of acute angles in garden design is not recommended, for both functional and aesthetic reasons.

  • Use design lines to guide planting – the outline of your garden beds can influence ‘where you plant what’. For example, the space that is created when a design line arcs or juts out, is a great place for a feature plant or Focal Point. As well, you can accentuate your design lines by planting a single type of plant along the entire length of that line. Or you can alternate two or three different plants in a rhythmic pattern along the line, which will also serve to emphasize it.
The generous curves in this simple curvilinear design are accentuated by the alternating blue and green Junipers. The Malus 'Rosyglo' in the foreground is nicely 'framed' by the arching design line around it. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The generous curves in this simple curvilinear design are accentuated by the alternating blue and green Junipers. The Malus ‘Rosyglo’ in the foreground is nicely ‘framed’ by the arching design line around it. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Okay gardeners, I’m finished talking about arcs & angles, form & function and other designerspeak. Now you can go plant shopping – if you’re like me you’ll be the proverbial ‘kid in a candy store’. They say you should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry….

Happy Gardening (at last),

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

23 comments on “CURVES WONDERFUL CURVES: Good Lines Mean Good Designs – Part 2

  1. RJP says:

    I should have understood the concept of arc and tangent to a fair degree already, but this blog entry of yours has expanded my understanding and possibly my future design work also, thank you for it, well done, always love the photos and or illustrations enhancing the discussion each time

    • RJP says:

      I meant circular designs above (vs arc and tangent) and how to use them in design.

      • Hi Ralph,

        The Circular Theme and Arc and Tangent theme are of course related, in that they both use portions of circles – the difference is the Arc and Tangent theme joins the arcs with straight lines, whereas an Overlapping Circular design has full circles intersecting other full circles. I’m happy to hear that you now better understand the use of both of these Concept Forms in garden design.
        As a fairly ‘new’ designer, you’re still on a steep learning curve, but every time you complete another design you take a step up that curve – if this blog helps you climb a little faster, then I guess it’s doing what I set out to do. Thanks for the affirmation.


  2. Bayberry says:

    I was shocked when designing my tiny new garden that a curvilinear design just did not work. I am happy with it, but I still love those beautiful curves!

    • Hi Ann,

      Yes curves are hard to resist aren’t they? So what Concept Form did you end up with? I’d love to see photos if you have some – you should share your thoughts and experiences with this on your blog.


  3. Pat says:

    Hey Sis – great post as usual with great info. But one thing I noticed on the photo of the design using overlapping circles…where the 2 large lawn circles overlap they do create acute angles – going against your recommendations. The effect is still quite striking but I can see it could create a planting challenge. Is this a case where breaking the rules sometimes works (as is the case in photography) – or would the design be improved further were the design adjusted to prevent the acute angles?

    • Hi Pat,

      You are correct – in this photo the two circles of lawn intersect in such a way that acute angles are created. I chose to include it anyways, because it was an example of how appealing circles are in the landscape, despite the one weakness in this particular design – all of the other circles overlap at appropriate angles.
      My objection to acute angles is both functional and aesthetic. In this case there is a functional deficiency – that of the small unusable space, i.e. the ‘point’ where the arcs meet. Usually the aesthetics of these angles are awkward too, but in this instance the step-stone path leads the eye so strongly that the acute angles don’t stand out so much.
      So to answer your question, yes the design would be improved if the circles overlapped more, thus avoiding acute angles.
      Thanks Sis – your question provided a useful ‘teaching moment’.


  4. Craig Henderson says:

    Thanks for another great post. It is very timely as I am deciding on a theme for my own small yard in the inner city.

    • Hi Craig,

      Thanks for your comment.
      While small yards can be somewhat restrictive in terms of concept choices, they offer an opportunity to better appreciate good design lines, because everything is smaller scale and viewed from so much closer. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.


  5. Cheryl says:

    Hi Sue … Love your blog! Can’t wait for it to come every month! You keep inspiring me!

  6. Brian White says:

    Hi Sue, As a former student of yours (landscape design I) I was very glad to come across your blog. Great reminders and design tips! I am anxiously awaiting getting into my garden and applying some of your tips. My Columnar Aspens are growing like weeds, thx for the suggestion.

    • Hi Brian,

      So nice to hear from you – thanks for reading the blog! Happy to hear your Columnar Aspens are doing so well – I lost mine to Bronze Leaf Disease a couple of years ago.
      On another note, we’re offering Landscape Design Level 2 as an evening course this year – perhaps we’ll see you then.


  7. Carola says:

    Hi Sue,

    What a great refresher! I’m enjoying your blog so much, and the inspiring photos are really helpful. There’s so much to think about when designing, that it’s nice to be able to look back at what you wrote in past months too and remind myself. I’m glad you decided to do this!


    • Hi Carola,

      I’m glad I decided to do this too – although it’s more time consuming than I thought it would be (I’m not too fast on the keyboard). Anyways, I”m enjoying it and I’m glad you are too.


  8. jene26 says:

    I’m in love with curved beds or circular beds. Getting the plants to grow perfectly around the bed is tricky but can be done if you have the right type of plants. Creeping phlox is great for shaping.

    • Hi Jene,

      Curved beds are indeed lovely – when done properly of course. Planting a single type of plant the whole way around a big curve serves to emphasize the curve – especially effective with a full circle. Many plants can be used this way, for example; daylilies, catmint, coral bells, kinnickinnick, stonecrop, ornamental grasses, spreading Junipers – anything that has a fairly soft neutral growth habit will do.
      Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading!


  9. […] garden designers talk about the value of curves: voluptuous curves, curvilinear and circular forms, curves and serenity, the curvy garden and optical illusion, and the vital edge of biodiversity […]

  10. patriciasalloum says:

    So I’m an Interior Architecture student and I have a Landscaping course. I’ve been reading all day long your posts and seriously you really helped me with my next project. I’ll be designing a public park visited by all ages, races and classes and I thought about using curves and circles.
    Any advice or suggestions will be greatly appreciated 🙂

    • Hi Patricia,

      Thanks for your comments – glad you’ve found my posts helpful.

      As for the public park you’re designing, the same factors we consider in residential design would apply here too – but on a larger scale. Meeting the clients’ needs in the most functional and attractive way is still the order of the day – but your ‘clients’ in this case, consist of the entire body of people who will be using the park.

      First and foremost of course will be the consideration of how the park is to be used and what kind of functional spaces will be needed – e.g. walking/cycling paths, children’s play area, other recreational provisions (tennis court, swimming/wading pool, ball diamond etc.), picnic area, display gardens etc. The total amount of space you have to work with will also be an important design parameter.

      Once you determine the specific functional spaces you need and where they will be located, you can start experimenting with design lines – I usually draft several different concept designs for a client to choose from.

      Curving and circular design lines work well in public spaces – there is usually ample space to effectively execute a curving design theme and the flowing, arching lines provide an efficient and aesthetically pleasing means of circumnavigating a site. Just remember, big wide arcs are much more functional and visually restful than a lot of little curves or wiggly lines – simplicity is key.

      Hope this helps – good luck with your project and thanks for reading.

  11. […] the plants in perfect rows or squares, you get a midget cornfield. Unless that is your point, feel free to think in curves. They are more organic and break up the square outline of the house and its […]

  12. Dodie Horton says:

    I have found your blogs really helpful to read. Thank you. I’m considering redesigning my large sloping garden and am by nature drawn to curves and circles but need the practicality of rectilinear as I am seeking to make some level places here and there with raised beds etc. If I have a strong dividing line (screen, hedge or something) across the width of the garden, I’m wondering whether i could have rectilinear at the top half and then curves in the bottom half. But I am of course seeking harmony and unity. It’s proving a challenge!

    • Hi Dodie,

      Glad you find the blog helpful! To answer you question, yes that could work. You might also consider using arc and tangent design lines which is basically rectilinear but with arcs inserted into some of the corners, giving you the best of both worlds. Remember too, even a curvilinear theme can benefit from a couple strategically placed straight lines.

      Hope this helps. And thanks for reading!



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